What is a University?

The role of universities is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. This has been brought about by a number of different things. One of those has been the conversations that have come about since “Point Forward” was announced on March 5th of this year at UW- Stevens Point. What’s at stake in the discussions about program eliminations and dealing with UWSP’s current budget issues have been I think too focused on merely alleviating that immediate problem without a deeper understanding of what a university is, and what it ought to be.

There are competing ideologies at work.  The solution to addressing this problem and reimagining what this institution is depends on which ideology you subscribe to. On the one hand universities serve as gateways to better lives. They provide skills and training to obtain jobs we couldn’t get otherwise. But should that be the sole focus? Or should our purpose be something else. If the goal is education then what that is and how that manifests itself is altogether different than being merely an institution for job training. Both of those focuses give you skills and can improve your employ-ability in different fields. But if education is the goal then the priority should be on what a good education looks like. To me, that looks like being challenged to think differently about our place in the world, it’s about connecting with our cultural history, the good and the bad, learning from it. It’s about learning to think deeper and more critically about the world we inhabit. Giving us the tools to not merely get a job, but change our workplaces and our society for the better. Education should empower us with greater knowledge and empathy. Achieving this requires that the humanities which history, culture, empathy and learning how to connect to, relate to, and communicate our experiences of the world.

If all we seek is job training in a market in which what jobs are available is always changing then we doom ourselves to an endless no-win game of keeping up with the Joneses that puts faculty and students in precarious situations about what their own futures may look like. If we want to engage in these debates then we should do so knowing fully what options exist.  Those options can’t exist merely in the paradigm of cutting programs and letting administrators determine the fate of everyone that works for or studies at a university.  If this line of thinking prevails that it reminds me a lot of the idea of manufactured consent that Noam Chomsky has articulated.  The idea that media outlets establish the parameters of and positions on a given issue and all debate must happen within that space, and be loud to make the positions seem as distant as possible. This however, ignores the whole extent of possible positions that may exist outside of that constructed paradigm.

If we want to force a more meaningful conversation about reimagining the university then we need to have the sort of critical thinking and creative problem solving that can allow us to stake out positions outside of the options that have been given to us.  It is imperative that all tools of social change used by activists throughout history including civil disobedience in the form of protests, walk outs, sit ins and strikes be on the table to allow everyone to fully participate in determining their own future. The conversations happening about budget issues and shifting priorities can take us in any one of a number of different directions. Of those directions, we ought to strive for the best possible one which strengthens the core mission of the university, improves access and affordability, and affords faculty the opportunity to engage in doing the best, most cutting edge work to engage students in challenging, thought provoking ways about our shared history and the times we currently find ourselves in.

In order to do that we’ve got to tease out and examine the different ideologies and how they might play out in practice. Of these ideologies I would argue that the two most prominent ones are the university as a business and the university as an institution of learning and education.

The university as a business presents us with a problem limited in scope to business models for how we resolve our budget shortfall.  That is, when there are limited funds austerity must be enforced.  The decision making for how that austerity is applied is decided by the board members or in this case the administrators.  The options involve cutting programs and laying off faculty/staff to alleviate the budget shortfall and address the momentary crisis, without a great deal of thinking beyond the immediate scope and nature of the problem we are currently facing.

If the university is a business the workers are the faculty and staff who contribute daily to the teaching of classes, and the necessary maintenance, custodial, and developmental work required to upkeep the physical space the university occupies.  If the university is a business decisions tend to be made from the top down, with little meaningful input coming from the workers and the customers. If the university is a business then students are the customers, and the product being sold is a degree.  It’s not an education.  If the focus is on degrees then the goal becomes to streamline this process as much as possible.  Make the degrees easy to achieve, and able to be accomplished in as little time as possible so that people can get into their desired career fields sooner.  To make the product more affordable you cut costs, by cutting salaries or freezing them, increase the amount of work each worker must do, for less money, and put customers in charge of determining the quality of the product they receive.

However, this model doesn’t allow for qualitative questions about what constitutes an education.  It doesn’t allow for the worth of a degree which is ultimately merely a symbol of the education you’ve received at a university to be assessed meaningfully by people with the knowledge and insights to assess the quality beyond monetary value or employ-ability.

The competing ideology is of the university as an institution of learning and a community.  The focus is put more on education and not on degrees.  This is not to do away with degrees, but to make sure students get the most out of their degrees, and make sure faculty are in a position to do their best work.  This ideology also requires that the conversations about what changes need to be made by the institution to address different issues as they arise are done by the whole community, with everyone having an opportunity to be heard and weigh in on how these problems might be solved.

It means the focus is on education, learning, which should be critical and thought provoking it should make students address new concepts and ideas.  It should afford them the opportunity to engage with these concepts to become better citizens and people, to think more deeply about race, gender, politics, history, art, science and what these things are and what they can be.

UW-Stevens Point has a budget shortfall.  This stems from decreasing enrollment, loss in state funding, and an array of other reasons.  That’s the reality, but if these changes and cuts that are being discussed are truly about reimagining the university, then the first question we need to settle is what is the university.  Beyond that, we should be able to have a conversation about every feature and facet of this institution and discuss what’s worth keeping, what’s worth changing and how we can best do that together, with an eye towards making the university into something dynamic, affordable, thought provoking, and accessible to everyone in the community it serves.  Collectively, we can identify problems with our governance structure, funding, operations, where there is excessive and unnecessary bureaucracy and any other issues to make this place the best it can be, for everyone.

 

-Justin